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Mysteries of love and death: (l-r) Jackman and Weisz in The Fountain.

By John Rodat

The Fountain

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The trailers for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain must strike fans of the director’s work as unlikely. After all, his previous movies—the emotionally intense, almost obsessively textured films Pi and Requiem for a Dream—do not give much evidence that a sci-fi love story might be forthcoming. Yet, the previews seem to promise just that. And, to an extent, The Fountain delivers on that promise. But moviegoers expecting a kind of post-Matrix version of Ghost will be uncomfortably challenged by The Fountain.

The story follows a couple—or rather three versions of a couple—through time and space as they struggle to reconcile their romantic, mortal love with their evolving relationships with both the concept and the physical fact of death. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play, respectively, a 16th- century conquistador and the queen of Spain, a modern-day brain surgeon and his dying wife, and a 26th-century astronaut and a spectral woman who might also be the queen of Spain and/or a brain surgeon’s dying wife.

The story unfolds incrementally, as the viewer is led back and forth through these times and settings. We see Tomas, the valiant Spanish soldier, ordered by the Queen into the jungles of New Spain to retrieve the Mayan secret of immortality and thereby rescue Spain from the scourge of the Grand Inquisitor; we see Tom Creo, the agonizing doctor, driving his staff of scientific researchers to invent a cure for his wife’s expanding brain tumor; we see Tom, the futuristic space traveler hurtling in a bubble toward a nebula that may be the cosmic weigh station to which the Mayans believed the dead travel to be reborn. The scenes are linked via plot devices, such as the fact that the dying wife happens to be writing a book about a conquistador’s search for the biblical Tree of Life deep in the jungles of South America, and by repeated incantatory scraps of dialog.

If it sounds pretty fuzzy, it is. Aspects of the story don’t stand up to much examination, and they raise annoying questions: How, exactly, for example, will possessing the secret of immortality end the Inquisition? And what’s the biblical Tree of Life doing in South America, anyway? Interestingly, though, these very plot failings work to highlight the movie’s strengths. By using the overfamiliar love story as a scaffold, Aronofsky frees the viewers’ attention. The plot doesn’t really require much scrutiny; you can take it on faith—it’s just another love story. If it’s fuzzy, it’s purposely, evocatively so. The holes allow the viewer to regard the movie more as poem than plot, as a visual metaphor illustrating that the world is now and always the home of love and death.

And speaking of visuals: Aronofsky and his creative team used microphotography of organic processes, rather than computer-generated imagery, for the film’s special effects and they are truly spectacular. The images—especially when paired with the soundtrack by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai—are, like the movie itself, lush, warm and pleasantly disorienting.

Kitschy Lament

Bobby

Directed by Emilio Estevez

Movies of the recently departed Robert Altman—particularly Nashville and Short Cuts—come to mind when watching Bobby, writer-director Emilio Estevez’s heartfelt paean to lost idealism and promise. The similarities begin—and end—with the constant criss-crossing of characters and plot lines. The critic Vincent Canby described Nashville as being a movie about “ambition, sentimentality, politics, emotional confusion and empty goals,” and it’s clear that Estevez is striving mightily to reach those same grace notes. Unfortunately, his efforts are mostly embarrassing.

Like a great many disaster films of the 1970s, Bobby trots out an all-star cast that looks like a who’s who of the gossip pages of an entire years’ subscription to People. Also like a great many disaster films of the 1970s, Bobby is all about throwing celebrity at its audience (“Isn’t that Lindsay Lohan? Ohmygod, it’s Sharon Stone!”) whilst the viewers wait with baited breath for the inevitable tragedy. In this case, however, the tragedy isn’t a freak of nature or faulty construction, but an assassin. Performers who are now known more for their physiques and style cues than their thespian resumes, such as Demi Moore, get to sink their pearly whites into small, meaty roles, while others such as Moore’s real-life hubby Ashton Kutcher, as a drug dealer, deliver slight variations on a well-established theme. For the most part, the famous faces get in the way, but then again, considering the script, there isn’t much to get in the way of.

As a writer, Estevez can’t get his script much past his adulation of the political activism of people like his father, Martin Sheen (who’s also in the movie), and a rose-colored vision of what our world would have looked like, had the devastation of assassinations, race riots and Vietnam not taken over and numbed us. His characters, particularly the kitchen workers at the Ambassador Hotel, where the action plays out during the day leading up to Robert F. Kennedy’s death, don’t so much talk or argue issues as deliver pat statements that crystallize bigger concepts like racism, class warfare, recreational drug use, the rise of psychology and marital counseling, or Vietnam. When in doubt, Estevez dips into old movie lore, which perhaps explains his use of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” in an unconscionably obvious way, or bellman Anthony Hopkins’ riff on Lewis Stone’s famous coda to Grand Hotel: “People coming, people going. Nothing ever happens.”

There are some good moments, notably Estevez’s use of actual RFK footage—rather than having an actor impersonate the Senator from New York—to underpin his charisma, his oratory skills, and, yes, his potential to lead our nation. The movie also delivers a moving elegy on the old-fashioned glamour that encompassed nightlife at places like the Coconut Grove in L.A. Ironically, it is these moments which deliver far more power and poignancy than anything else in Bobby, which feels, despite its sincerity, completely manufactured and doggedly determined to educate its audience on just about everything that went on in the 1960s in just under two hours.

—Laura Leon

Double Team Supreme

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

Directed by Liam Lynch

Five years is a long time. While Tena-cious D’s 2001 self-titled CD is one of the better comedy-rock albums in recent memory (both the songs and the skits are funny, which is nice), to most of America, this was all the duo (Jack Black and Kyle Gass) had ever done—prior, three half-hour episodes of a TV series were made for HBO, but those went largely unseen before being issued on DVD in 2003.

So what is there to recommend about a film that’s shown up a good three years too late? Well, it’s a lot more successful than most of the Saturday Night Live screen adaptations, that’s for sure. Director Liam Lynch (Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic) goes out of his way to keep Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny from playing like an extended skit, and succeeds a little more than half of the time.

Framed as a prequel of sorts to the duo’s rise to, er, superstardom, Pick of Destiny sets up or revisits many of the jokes from the album and short-lived series. The film opens with a 10-year-old J.B. (Troy Gentile) performing an extremely vulgar (and quite kickass) song in front of his conservative, Midwestern family. This introductory sequence is the funniest thing in the film, featuring Meat Loaf as the overbearing father, and Ronnie James Dio as JB’s inspirado. The grown-ass J.B. (Black) eventually turns up in Hollywood, where he spots Gass performing on Venice Beach. The two join forces to become “The Greatest Band in the World.”

From there, the film attempts to be, by turns, a buddy flick, road movie, heist caper, love story (in a heterosexual-life-partner way), and the ultimate showdown. And, to the filmmakers’ credit, there is no attempt to introduce a love interest or complicated subplot. The conceit is dead simple (and ludicrous)—they need to retrieve the Pick of Destiny from the Rock and Roll History Museum so they can win the local open-mic contest and pay their rent.

Still, the best moments come in the film’s first half—the story of the origin of the band’s name, for instance, is inspired stupidity. Once the duo hits the road, the film reverts to feeling like a series of loosely strung-together vignettes.

Perhaps it’s because buying the older, doughier Black and Gass as young, hungry rockers requires a monumental suspension of disbelief. But the idea that a pair of fat dudes could become the greatest band in the world was at one time believable—because they had the songs to back it up. Here, the music is mostly lackluster, with the exception of the hysterical “Kickapoo” (the opening number) and the plot- summarizing title track.

Still, fans of the D should come away pleased by the amount of in-jokes and f-bombs. Expect typical fat-guy physical comedy from Black, cameos from all the usual suspects (Tim Robbins, co-executive producer Ben Stiller, and Foo Fighters singer Dave Grohl—as Satan, natch), and lyrics that, to a word, pay tribute to the awesome power of Tenacious D. Oh, and cock pushups.

—John Brodeur

Booby Prize

For Your Consideration

Directed by Christopher Guest

It’s easy to catalog some of the hilarious moments in the Hollywood satire For Your Consideration. There’s the morning-TV weather girl (Nina Conti) who delivers the forecast while talking to a monkey hand-puppet. (It’s a fact, morning newscasts would be markedly improved if the anchors had animal puppets: “What did the president say to the Iraqi prime minister, Binky?”) There’s the accomplished actor (Harry Shearer) explaining how people are discriminating enough to appreciate both his distinguished theater work and his long run as “Irv the Happy Weiner” in a series of hot-dog commercials. There’s the slimy studio executive (Ricky Gervais) suggesting that a Jewish-themed script would be improved if the “Jewishness” could be “toned down.”

On the other hand, it’s just as easy to list the many ways in which For Your Consideration doesn’t work.

Oh well, their good luck had to run out eventually. By “they,” I’m referring to writer-director Christopher Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy who, with a talented ensemble of gifted improv actors, brought the comic faux-documentaries Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind to grateful moviegoers. The premise of their latest collaboration—the makers of a small indie film come down with an acute case of Oscar-itis—is inspired, but the execution isn’t.

Perhaps this is because they’ve abandoned the fake-documentary format. Maybe they’re just burned out. Whatever the reason, much of the Hollywood satire seems misdirected or muted.

Home for Purim, a melodrama about a World War II-era Jewish family dealing with mom’s incipient death and the return of the prodigal lesbian daughter, is the film- within-a film being made by a cast of entertaining has-beens and never-weres led by wannabe diva Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), up-and-comer Callie Webb (Parker Posey) and the aforementioned hot-dog man (Shearer). It sounds hilarious, but it isn’t. Why? Because sometimes the film-within-a-film is ridiculous, but, at other times, it actually seems kinda good; Shearer, Posey and O’Hara seem to be coming at the material from wildly different points of view.

Overall, however, the filmmakers seem unsure of how hard they want to come with the satire. Parodies of TV shows like Ebert & Roeper and Charlie Rose hit the mark, but much of the celebrity-culture joking seems flat and, even worse, years out-of-date. There is also the delicate problem of miscasting: It’s always nice to see everyone in this ensemble, but not every actor is appropriate for their role. As a colleague pointed out, most of these actors are a bit long in the tooth to be playing in a comedy about indie film, a notoriously youth-oriented genre.

For Your Consideration offers some fine moments—provided, notably, by O’Hara and, in her first “star” turn in one of these films, Posey—but eventually comes up as empty as any loser on Oscar night.

—Shawn Stone


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